The autumn trees have been absolutely transcendent the past few days. From my earliest memories fall has been my favorite time of year, and a large determinant is the trees. Some weeks back, while on the campus of Notre Dame University, I noticed the highly stylized icons of biblical tropes etched into the stone walls of the library. The marble of the walls was highly polished, making images difficult to capture, but I tried to snap one of the tree of life. The tree of life has many associations that go back even into pre-biblical times. Many people are familiar with the story from Genesis, where the tree of life is forbidden to Adam and Eve because they ate from the tree of knowledge. That tree, however, goes back to ancient Mesopotamian stories of paradise as well. Even the Sumerians considered trees foundational.
I suspect that trees are impressive partially because of their longevity. From a human perspective, they long outlast us—some of the oldest trees in the world are located in western Asia. If we don’t attack them, some species have a pretty good chance of lasting hundreds of years. With roots that run deep and crowns that reach high, trees have been a rich source of symbolism for religions for a very long while. The goddess Asherah was, in some way, connected with trees. I’ve noted in some of my more academic work that the precise nature of this relationship is never really clarified, but some have suggested that the tree of life itself is a form of the goddess. Certainly in Judaism the tree of life inspired the menorah and its gift of light, to be celebrated later this month.
Looking out my window at the brilliant reds and yellows, I am glad for the solidity of trees. Much of life is much less stable than our wooden companions. The myth of the tree of life is a reminder that even if we can hold the eons in our heads, our bodies will not last so long. It is a poignant thought, best captured by the slow falling of the leaves at this time of year. The leaves had just started to change as I strolled the campus of Notre Dame, unaware that my own fall was likely already set in place. The proverbial axe, as it were, was already laid to the root of the tree. I was perhaps too busy thinking about the tree of life to notice the changes taking place around me. A good metaphor will do that to you, and it might even live as long as the tree of life itself.